In worldwide tests, 15-year-olds in the UK are now stuck in the middle rankings. Donald Hirsch says we can learn a lot from the results of the latest international survey.When worldwide league tables of reading performance among 15-year-olds were first published in 2001, the United States and Norway were both exactly average for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Each country's education minister made a speech.
"As Americans, we don't think it's good enough to be average," stormed the US minister, thumping the table and making one of his country's perennial pledges to become "best in the world".
His Norwegian counterpart calmly told the press, "Well, we are about middle, and we will look carefully at the results of other countries to see if we can improve."
As with football, we in the UK find it hard to accept we might be middling in international education comparisons. But now that the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey shows that this is the case - in maths and science as well as reading - it is time to start taking a measured interest in what we could learn from other countries.
Here are four key areas where international comparisons could help put our own school system's development in context.
First - different approaches to the curriculum count for a lot. In some countries, pupils do relatively well in tasks requiring content knowledge and familiarity with operations, while in others they excel at thinking about and applying information in a wider context.
For example, in the 2006 Pisa science test, pupils in countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary were strong when it came to mastering knowledge to explain scientific phenomena, but much weaker at interpreting and using scientific evidence.
It is easy to criticise such systems as unimaginative, and say that science is about understanding, not about learning facts or theories. In fact, it is about both.
In France, an emphasis on scientific reasoning produced above-average results in using evidence, but weak knowledge of scientific phenomena. This was especially the case on earth and space topics, where pupils performed abysmally, below every OECD country except Mexico and Turkey.
In the UK, pupils are just above average both in "knowledge of science" and "knowledge about science". The French experience shows the importance of maintaining a balanced approach to improving both areas if we are to make progress.
The second area in which international comparisons are helpful is accountability and performance monitoring. Of the many aspects of school policy examined in the survey, accountability was one of the few that had a clear association with performance - even after taking into account other factors such as pupils' social background. In countries where standards-based external examinations exist and schools posted their results, pupils tended to do better.
British schools have been given a much larger dose of accountability and performance monitoring than most countries in recent years - and the Pisa results reveal that this has made a difference. This does not mean, however, that the volume of testing, inspection and monitoring in the UK is all beneficial. But countries where the reverse is true tend to become complacent.
This explains Germany's shock at finding it had below-average standards in the first Pisa test in 2000. Since then, it has raised its performance to average in reading and mathematics and above average in science. An important factor in this appears to be a greater sense of accountability, which helps to keep teachers and pupils on their toes.
Third - Pisa shows clearly that selective education produces results that strongly reflect social differences. The strength of the relationship between social background and pupil performance varies a great deal across countries: about a quarter of it is associated with selection. The earlier the age of selection, the stronger this effect.
This is relevant both to attempts by some Conservative politicians to put grammar schools back on the agenda, and even more so to a bitter debate raging in Northern Ireland over secondary selection.
Abolitionists may take heart from Poland, which in 1999 created a comprehensive lower secondary sector, thus delaying selection until 16. The ensuing years saw a huge improvement in reading performance at 15 among the least able pupils. The percentage with low proficiency went from well above to well below the OECD average. And this was not at the expense of strong performers, whose average scores initially remained static but are now rising.
Fourth - the performance and character of school systems can change, sometimes quite quickly. In addition to the Polish turnaround, one outstanding example is Korea.
In 2000, Korean pupils performed above average in the Pisa reading test, with very few having low literacy although few youngsters truly excelled: only 6 per cent of pupils reached the highest proficiency level, compared with nine per cent across the OECD.
Korea addressed this shortcoming with a new curriculum that introduced more essay-based tests and gave pupils greater scope to present their opinions when being screened for university. This encouraged better-performing pupils to enhance their reading and reasoning skills.
The resulting turnaround was truly remarkable: by 2006, 22 per cent of 15-year-olds - far more than in any other country - were performing at the top proficiency level.
The kind of rapid change seen in Poland and Korea in recent years is the exception, and it would be a mistake to search for a magic bullet to produce comparable improvements in the UK. Yet the big lesson of international comparison is that we need not regard the weaknesses of our education system as immutable - even where they have deep roots in our culture.
As in previous surveys, Pisa identifies the UK's most important weakness as being its relatively wide gap between the scores of pupils from different social backgrounds. In the strongest-performing OECD countries - Finland, Korea and Canada - these social differences are well below average.
The good news is, if we are truly determined to follow these countries' examples, we can.
- The writer is an independent policy consultant to the OECD.
HOW WE COULD CLIMB BACK TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD
- We need to understand that knowledge and how to apply that knowledge are of equal importance. A balanced approach to improving both areas of learning is needed.
- There is a strong link between accountability and performance: too much accountability, in the form of testing and inspection, can be counterproductive; but too little breeds complacency.
- Selective schooling widens social gaps - one of the greatest weaknesses of the UK system. Delaying selection has been shown to improve literacy among students of all abilities.
- It is possible to effect a fast turnaround in literacy levels. Where there's a will, there's a way.